What's the Fuss About Phonics?

A Balanced Question

For first- and second-graders, phonics now involves more than merely left-to-right decoding, Dr. Calkins says. "We want kids to come at a new word from all angles, so we help them learn to recognize base words, sound patterns, and prefixes." A lesson on the op sound, for example, starts off introducing children to simple words like hop and pop and then moves on to progressively harder words such as operator and opposition. Teachers then incorporate the sound in class reading and writing exercises, spelling lists, and rhyming games. Children in the early grades also need plenty of writing opportunities, since writing is one of the most rigorous forms of putting phonics into practice. Good phonics homework assignments ask students to write out the words found on their spelling lists, use them in a sentence, and then list other words they know with the same sound.

After decades of debating the pros and cons of whole language and phonics, we now know that children need a balance of both to learn to read. They need to make sound-letter correspondences to decode word structure and must have access to level-appropriate books of all genres.

And there's one more thing that makes a difference in kids' reading success: time spent reading to -- or with -- an adult who can give them feedback. Phonics is an important step on the road to literacy, but parents can still pave the way early on by exposing children to wonderful stories and conversation and providing a rich and stimulating language environment.

Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the February 2002 issue of Child magazine.

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